On Saturday gyms in England will be opening their doors for the first time in four months. But with the rise of online workouts and outdoor exercise during lockdown, will people be rushing to go back?
For Lee Chambers keeping fit without the gym has been a struggle.
The 35-year-old from Preston has an autoimmune condition which weakened his joints and just six years ago left him unable to walk. He says access to the specialist equipment at gyms has been crucial to his recovery – both mentally and physically.
Normally he would go three times a week and can’t wait to return.
While he’s tried home workouts – his wife’s handbag weighed down with cans has doubled up as a kettlebell and his children’s swing frame has been used for pull-ups – it hasn’t quite been the same.
- How gyms are working out social-distancing rules
- Half of leisure centres could close, warns trade body
As well as being able to use adjustable weights equipment to strengthen the muscles around his joints, Lee says the gym also helps him switch off from the stresses of his work and home life.
“I don’t take my phone in – the only inputs and stimulus I have are training my body,” he says. “It’s almost cathartic because it’s just me on my own, pushing my own boundaries. There’s no other distractions.”
Others have missed the social aspect of exercising together.
Two years ago, Karen Webber set herself the goal of getting fit before she turned 40. She had never been a sporty person before but after joining her local gym in Stockport she enjoyed being part of a community and meeting new people.
“Being able to exercise with people who share your motivations and encourage you, there’s something really powerful in that,” she says.
When lockdown started, like many others, Karen’s gym immediately switched to online classes, putting on several sessions a day and loaning equipment to members. There were also monthly challenges, virtual family sports days and even workouts in the gym’s car park.
However, Karen says she still missed the atmosphere of the gym and the motivation it gave her.
“It’s very easy when you’re slightly off screen or you’re not doing a live class to just not go as hard as you would normally,” she says.
“When you’re in the gym you can’t get away with just leaving the class when you’re tired. “
Karen admits she is still a little apprehensive about returning – she hasn’t been indoors with anyone except her family since March.
She’ll be easing herself in with a weightlifting class on Monday and will stick to online cardio sessions for now, worried about the virus spreading through heavy breathing.
Many gyms and personal trainers – including Karen’s – are continuing to offer online classes for those who don’t yet feel ready to return.
But this hasn’t been enough to stop some people cancelling their memberships.
The Gym Group, one of the UK’s biggest companies in this sector, says it has lost about a fifth of its members during lockdown, despite halting payments.
Lisa Collins, who used to go to the gym four or five times a week, is one of those who won’t be renewing her subscription. Fees had been suspended during lockdown but when her gym emailed to say they would restart in August, she felt it was just too soon.
“Suddenly going into a gym with hundreds of people going in and out feels a bit terrifying,” the 49-year-old says.
But even without the safety concerns, Lisa isn’t sure she can still justify the monthly membership fee.
“My life has changed so much since lockdown,” she says. “Before I would drop the kids off at school, go to the gym, shower and go out to work.
“But now I’m not out and about as much it just feels so much easier to roll out of bed, put my gym kit on and join a Zoom yoga session instead.”
Lisa has enjoyed the flexibility of online classes, where she can pay per session rather than through a monthly subscription. There’s also no longer the risk of classes being booked up. Even before lockdown she says it was difficult to get a slot at her local gym but now, with many centres reducing class sizes, it will be even harder.
For Lee, however, the new requirement to book before visiting his gym is appealing – and it’s one of the reasons why he’s reassured enough to return, along with the extra cleaning measures in place.
The limits on numbers will mean the equipment he wants to use is more likely to be available, as well as enabling social distancing.
“It’s going to be more hygienic than it’s ever been before,” he says.
“So it’s got to the point for me now where the benefits just about outweigh the risks.”
What will gyms be like when they reopen?
Gyms will have to follow strict social distancing guidelines, including:
- Capacity limits, controlled by a timed booking system
- Reduced class sizes
- Equipment spaced out and improved ventilation
- Temporary floor markings in dance studios where possible
- Customers encouraged to shower and change at home
Indoor gyms are already open in Northern Ireland but no reopening date has been set yet for Scotland or Wales.